Transcript – Episode 76

Narrator:  This podcast is a project of the Mass Cultural Council.  We believe in the power of culture, the arts, humanities, and sciences, to enrich communities, advance equity, and foster creativity. 

John Durant:  I have always been convinced that science was for everyone, and if you think about it for a minute, it’s kind of obvious that it is.  Think about medicine, you know.  Everybody engages with medical science at some points in their lives, and I think one of the things that a science festival does is just to make that abundantly clear.

Anita Walker:  Hello.  I’m Anita Walker, Executive Director of the Mass Cultural Council, and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud.  Our guest today is John Durant.  He is the Director of the MIT Museum.  Welcome.

John Durant:  Thank you very much.  Hi.

Anita Walker:  I was trying to remember, as I was sitting here, how long have you been running the Cambridge Science Festival?

John Durant:  Well, we launched the thing as an initiative with the announcement in, I think it was June, 2006, and our first festival went live spring 2007.

Anita Walker:  It has experienced amazing growth and resonance. 

John Durant:  Yes.  I mean, sometimes you do things in life, and you really don’t have any sense, of course, how it’s going to turn out, or what it will lead to, and if you’d asked me back then, you know, how will this be in two, three, five, ten years’ time, I really wouldn’t have had much idea.  I do remember that our first year the theory was that we would start small, you know, take steps before you run, and all that kind of stuff.  But, in fact, because of the way we organized the festival, it started pretty large, and it was like, wow, look at all this, and it’s just been like that ever since, you know. 

Anita Walker:  So much science to pack into a festival.

John Durant:  Well, that’s right.  Yeah.  And so it really has just been like, once it started it was holding on to the tail of the tiger, really, from my point of view.

Anita Walker:  What was your intention?  What were you meaning to do?

John Durant:  Well, you know, I had newly arrived from the UK to direct the MIT Museum, so I was new to the United States, as well as to Cambridge, and I’d been doing science outreach in England for a while, and I expected the landscape here to be broadly similar.  The two countries, you know, they have their differences, but they also have a lot of things in common, including, roughly speaking, the language, and so I expected to see things I was familiar with.  I was familiar with festivals of science and technology, actually in Europe, but there wasn’t one in Cambridge, Mass, even though Cambridge, Mass is kind of science city, you know.  There’s more science per square foot there, as I sometimes say, than anywhere else I’ve ever been.  But I would ask people in my early months, you know, you’re allowed to ask questions when you’re a newcomer that you can’t ask when you’ve been around a while, so it was like, well, why isn’t there a science festival in this town?  And I always got the same answer, which was what’s a science festival?  And so I would try and explain, and then people, as soon as they got the idea, they’d say, that’s a good idea.  Why don’t we do it? 

Anita Walker:  What is a science festival?

John Durant:  Well, the way I used to put it is, and I still do, is imagine other festivals that you might know, festivals of music, or of literature, or of art, and then imagine doing that for science and technology.  That’s really it, you know.  You celebrate in the community.  You do lots of special events.  You try to bring in outstanding people, and you try to really engage the whole community in this effort, as much as you realistically can, you know.  My aim when I started it, actually, was that if there was anybody living or working in Cambridge who was awake they ought to be aware that the science festival was going on.  That seemed to me to be a reasonable criterion.  So, you know, the reason I started it was, in a sense, that everybody I spoke to thought it was a good idea, and so it seemed to be a gap that needed to be filled, and everybody I spoke to was willing to help, pretty much, including, I’m glad to say, the Massachusetts Cultural Council. So I ran out of excuses, really, not to do it, you know.  I mean, if everybody wants it, and everybody is willing to help, then why not?

Anita Walker:  You know, it’s interesting, because when we think of other festivals, music festival and arts festival, art and music is for everybody, but science, science is for those people in the white coats that are super smart.  Is science really for everybody?  Have we sort of changed, in terms of our attitudes around science in the last ten years, in your experience?

John Durant:  Probably.  It’s been complicated, I think, what’s been going on, but I think, of course, I’ve been committed to trying to prove what you just said wrong my whole life, so I’ve always been convinced that science was for everyone.  And if you think about it for a minute, it’s kind of obvious that it is, you know.  Everybody is fascinated by new discoveries and inventions.  Everybody wants the latest gizmos, and at least to begin with wants to know how they work.  Once they settle in nobody cares.  Nobody cares anymore how a cellphone works, but back in the day, when they didn’t work everybody was fascinated by the idea, you know, and they were kind of bricks that people held up against their ears and shouted in the street.  Everyone was fascinated by how you could have a phone without a cable.  So think about medicine, you know.  Everybody engages with medical science at some points in their lives.  You are engaging with science directly, so it really is for everyone, and I think one of the things that a science festival does is just to make that abundantly clear.  And lo and behold, when you do it, people really show up, you know.  People really want to get more involved.  As long as you can convince them that they don’t have to be nerds, and they don’t have to have, you know, two heads in order to deal with this stuff, that’s the first move, and then you’re off to the races. 

Anita Walker:  What I love about festivals, in general, is that they have the lowest barrier to participation.

John Durant:  Yeah.

Anita Walker:  I don’t have to walk through the laboratory door.  I don’t have to cross the proscenium.  I can accidentally bump into it on Main Street.

John Durant:  Exactly.  And that was precisely our aim from the beginning.  In fact, in the first year, I still remember.  It seems a long time ago now.  We came up with this idea of trying to turn the public street into a model of the human genome, because an awful lot of the human genome was sequenced in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  And so we took the roughly two miles between Kendall Square T-stop and Harvard Square T-stop, and we said what would it be like if we treated that as a model of the genome.  There are twenty-three pairs of chromosomes in our genetic makeup, so you would need twenty-three pairs of lamp posts, roughly the right distance apart along that trajectory.  And we put big banners up on these, and at each pair of lamp posts, because the chromosomes come in pairs.  You’d have something up which told you a bit about those chromosomes.  You’re at chromosome number nine.  This is really weird, if you think about it.  You’re standing on a street, but now you’re being told you’re at chromosome nine, and it would tell you something about what we know is going on on chromosome nine.  And I remember the twenty-third pair of chromosomes, the sex chromosomes, the ones that are different in men and women, X and Y, so those turned out to be in Harvard Square.  And one of the more bizarre things I remember ever doing in my science outreach career was going along for the May celebration.  There’s a May Day celebration in Harvard Square each year.  They close the streets.  They have bands, and so on, and we had people handing out placards with Xs and Ys on them to hundreds of people on the street who were actually there principally, I think, to watch a band of scantily clad women who were singing, I remember.  I was told I had to get on the stage after them, and actually I still, at that point I had a two-year-old son with me, and I was on childcare, so he was kind of with me.  I remember getting up on the stage and thinking what am I doing now, actually?  I’m getting up after this sort of band who are about half my age, and I’ve got this youngster on my arm.  What’s he going to do?  And I have to tell all these people to hold up their placards of X and Y chromosomes while we take a photograph from the rooftops, you know.  You do some strange things when you get involved with a science festival, but as you say, it’s all about having preferably no bar to entry.  So all these folks had to do to get involved that day was to turn up for the May Day celebration.  They thought they were there for whatever, shopping or music, or whatever, but they found themselves celebrating the sex chromosomes.  What can I tell you?

Anita Walker:  They couldn’t have imagined a better day.  So here we are, what, ten plus years into the program.  It’s got a life of its own.  I mean, it’s taken off with or without you, I have a feeling.  Right?

John Durant:  I hope so.  I mean, really if you start this kind of thing, honestly one of my principal objectives is to get it to a point where were if I were to bow out, it would carry on, because it’s not so great if everything you try goes until you look away, and then falls on its face, you know.  So, yes, I like to think it’s pretty embedded now.  I think Cambridge would miss it if it didn’t happen.  The city has got very invested.  We couldn’t do it actually without tremendous civic support, you know.  Every time I put things on lamp posts, the police details have to come out and help with that.  We always get them, no charge.  They never question it.  The city is very invested in this festival, and it’s grown steadily, you know, so we now have certainly more than fifty thousand people a year engaging in face-to-face events.  It’s often quite hard to tell, because most of the events are free.  Many of them are open, like our genome trail.  As I said, you know, how many people saw that?  Well, how did you count, you know.  So, yeah, it’s really become an established thing, and I have a great, small but great team who run it each year.

Anita Walker:  Science is fun. 

John Durant:  Well, it is, and it’s something that people want to do, and it’s not just kids.  Everybody knows that kids enjoy science and technology, but it’s interesting.  About two years in, I can’t remember.  Maybe it was one year in.  We decided to stretch.  We were a ten-day festival.  We decided to stretch a point, and instead of starting on a Saturday, the first Saturday, we thought we’d start the Friday evening with an adult event.  And, you know, we’re competing.  On a Friday night, basically, if you start an event at seven or seven thirty, you are competing with clubs, and movie theaters, and other kinds of entertainment, but every year since then, which is now at least ten years, we have filled a venue.  Sometimes we have used First Parish in Harvard Square, which is a beautiful Unitarian Church.  We even used Sanders Theater, Harvard’s largest formal theater one year.  Every year we fill it.  This year, I can tell you, we had a science comedy show that evening.  We had Eugene Mirman.  It was called “The Continued Education of Eugene Mirman.”  What can I tell you?  According to Eugene, he really didn’t do very well at school.  I mean, just about as badly as you can do without totally flunking, and got out into the real world, as it were, and discovered that there were lots of things that he didn’t know about that actually it would have been quite nice to know about.  So we had this wonderful idea of taking a very talented brain scientist and a very talented science journalist, and have them come and talk on stage to teach this standup comedian a bit about how the brain works, and that was the whole evening, and we had a packed house.  It was very funny, and it was very informative, and, you know, you’re right there with a young adult audience, mainly.  Science is for everybody. 

Anita Walker:  So let’s talk about the museum. 

John Durant:  Okay.

Anita Walker:  What’s cooking at the museum? 

John Durant:  Well, the MIT Museum has been around for several decades.  It started in the ‘70s.  It’s always been in the same buildings.  You know, a lot of MIT over the years has been in old, industrial buildings that have been repurposed.  So my museum has been for the whole of its life, up to this point, in an old radio factory on Massachusetts Avenue, and I suppose it was a great radio factory, but it really isn’t very suitable for a museum.  I mean, it’s got low ceilings.  We’ve made, I think, the best of it, and we, I think, offer a pretty good experience to people, but we’re always operating with the constraints of the building.  Actually, it’s two buildings.  We occupy parts of each, and they’re on different levels, so we have ramps, and it’s like this is not the best, you know.  So very fortunately the Institute has decided to invite the museum to relocate to a new building over in Kendall Square, on the eastern side of the MIT campus, right by the Kendall T-stop, where we started the genome trail all those years ago, chromosome one.  And there’s a hole in the ground right now, as I speak, which is gradually being, the construction is just starting for this new building.  It’s a very large building.  We’ll be on the first three floors, right on Main Street.  We can’t wait, because it will be purpose designed space, high ceilings, more ability to do the kinds of things that museums like doing, so that’s all in the works.

Anita Walker:  That’s exciting, very exciting.  Now, like all of our other nonprofit museums, you do have to worry about raising money.

John Durant:  Yeah.

Anita Walker:  Corporate support and partnerships.  Talk a little about that, how that’s evolved for you since you’ve been here.

John Durant:  It’s true.  I don’t know any nonprofit that doesn’t care about raising money to support what it does.  Well, one thing I would say.  Let’s talk about the festival for a bit.  The real trick to running the festival out of MIT is that it’s a big collaboration, so though we host it at the MIT Museum, we depend on many other actors coming in.  The way I got support from MIT to do this was MIT said, well, we’ll give you a little bit of money towards the cost of this, but only a little bit.  We expect you to go and raise all the rest.  So I said, okay.  And it’s kind of worked, and the way it’s worked has been rather like the festival itself.  It’s a fairly big tent.  The festival is what I call a big tent operation.  We welcome any organization that wants to run a science event for the community during the festival ten days, and that’s how we come to have such a big program, you know, like the hundred and seventy-five events, or something.  We don’t organize all of those ourselves.  We organize some.  But we’ve also operated a big tent approach to fundraising, or funding, which is if we’re going to raise the money we need to do this as a year round operation, really, running a festival on this scale, then we need a whole clutch of supporters, and the people we’ve turned to apart from MIT and Harvard, the City of Cambridge has been a loyal supporter.  The Massachusetts Cultural Council was an early entrant, and was one of the few early funders, like the City of Cambridge, in being with us year after year, and even assuring us, in some cases, a couple of years ahead that they would be here next year.  That made a big difference at the beginning.  So we had a little clutch of early entrants, and then it was like, well, where should we go now?  And since we were about science and technology in the community, we decided to go to the science based companies that are so numerous in Cambridge.  And a whole clutch of those companies stepped forward, and each year since then we’ve had anywhere between fifteen and twenty-five different corporate sponsors at different levels.  What’s it made it stable is that, although individual company circumstances change, some come in, some drop out for a year or two, come back, the fact that we have such a wide base of support has been a stable thing, and I’m struck, as I look back that, you know, we’d only got going for a couple of years when the financial crisis hit.  Everybody was tightening their belts, of course, and it affected us, but we got through that.  And so I think we’ve got a reasonably strong financial model for the festival. 

Anita Walker:  Do you think that you are in a unique position, being in Cambridge and having a science festival, because what we hear from so many of our nonprofits is that the corporate support is diminishing dramatically.  It’s really individual support, where most of the revenue, the contributed income is coming from. 

John Durant:  Right.

Anita Walker:  It sounds like you might have a special circumstance.

John Durant:  Well, that’s interesting.  When it comes to the MIT Museum, contrasting that now, with the festival, what you just said is true, that a lot of our most significant financial support, especially with respect to the new museum, is coming from individual donors.  We do hope that some of the companies in Cambridge will also step up for the new museum, but we wouldn’t be able to do what we’re doing without our individual supporters.  But in the festival, it’s been the other way.

Anita Walker:  Do you know why?  That’s interesting.

John Durant:  I’m not sure entirely, except to say that, as I said, our festival, it is, as you say, in a special place.  It’s in a place that is distinguished by having such a large science base to the economy.  You know, the city is enthusiastic about the festival partly because it wants young people growing up in Cambridge to know what kinds of opportunities for them there are in companies in and around the city that are looking for qualified young people to go into their companies.  So I think the fact that we are celebrating science and technology in the community, for the community, has attracted numbers of companies who see this as being consistent with their own community relations.  We’ve also been fortunate in having one or two, more recently one or two larger relationships, so we have a very strong relationship with an international school system called “Nord Anglia,” which is represented in Boston by the British International School.  That company has stepped forward and become a really significant supporter for the last few years.  So it’s a changing situation, but, yeah, you have to constantly keep an eye on the fundraising, because these things otherwise are in trouble. 

Anita Walker:  Just to dig a little deeper into that, though, since so m any of our listeners are thinking every day about where they’re going to raise the next dollar in order to keep their organization open, but I’m just trying to put together.  So you have the Cambridge Festival, which you have established and maintained a significant level of corporate support over the years.

John Durant:  Yeah.

Anita Walker:  Then you have another entity, whose first name is MIT, and last name is museum, which is very different than science festival.

John Durant:  It is.  Well, the museum is the institution.  I mean, the MIT Museum is a part of MIT.  It’s wholly owned by MIT, so you’re really talking about MIT.  So the real trick here was that MIT agreed to get its mind around being the host for a community festival.  That wasn’t a done deal, though I should say, I mean, something we haven’t mentioned.  Since we launched our festival of science, other communities around the country have gotten interested.  In the early years they sent people to see what we were doing, and we hosted lots of people coming from, you know, the west coast, and from North Carolina, all over the place, and so other science festivals have grown up, and we actually have a network now of between fifty and sixty community based science festivals all over North America.  Some of those are also hosted by universities, so in North Caroline it’s UNC.  In San Francisco, until recently anyway, it’s been UCSF, University of California in San Francisco.  So it is a model that seems to work in several places, but not every university is willing to see part of its responsibility being to support a community science festival.  MIT took that step, and that’s been a great help.  So it is important, though, to the Institute, that I keep sort of a clear boundary here, so I can’t allow the festival to drain funds from the museum.  That would not help anybody, so we have to try and keep a certain, sort of wall between these, and say the festival will secure its own funding, and the museum model will continue.  As I say, they happen to have slightly different patterns for funding over recent times anyway.  So we’ll see where that goes.  But the festival really, in a sense, is the largest outreach program that my museum runs.  When I say “largest,” it’s about ten times as large as anything else we do, so that’s how I sometimes think of it.

Anita Walker:  Cambridge science festival, MIT Museum.  Thank you, John Durant, who is the director of the museum and the festival, another one of our Creative Minds Out Loud.

John Durant:  Thank you very much.

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